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Friday, August 29, 2014

Tanzania: Jambo! Camping in Tarangire

(This is the fifth installment in a series describing our self-drive safari to Tanzania. Our next stop will be Ngorongoro Crater.)

After finding our way through the distracting array of animals in Tarangire National Park we finally pulled into the public campground, our first experience with camping in Africa. After the harrowing ride through Arusha at rush hour and rough, corrugated roads in the park we were a bit frazzled by the time we found it. So much so that we forgot the first rule in human relations in Tanzania: say hello before you get down to business.

Tanzanians are big on greetings, to the extent that just saying hello can sometimes take five minutes or more. They consider it rude to come barreling in and start asking questions without so much as a "Jambo" (Kiswahili for hello). Of course this is the first thing we did. Oops.

Eli (pronounced Ay-lee), the Maasai campground host, was a good sport and forced us to slow down and do the right thing. After exchanging greetings and pleasantries he led us to a nice spot between two trees and told us to find him if we needed anything else.

Our closest neighbors brought their two small children, how awesome is that? Herds of gnu and zebra can be seen just beyond the camp.
Public campgrounds in Tanzania more closely resemble our group campgrounds here in the U.S. The grounds are sometimes defined by a few rocks around the edges, but more often than not they are a wide dusty spot on the savannah with a bathroom on one edge and a cookhouse on the other.  There are no numbered pull-in sites designated for each vehicle, it's more of a willy-nilly approach (something we found to be true of many things in Tanzania.) After we pulled in and found a flat spot to park several more vehicles showed up from an organized tour group and blocked us in, setting up tents all around us. Luckily, we weren't planning to go anywhere until morning anyway.

The view just behind our camp. A zebra (grazing, right of tree) is dwarfed by the huge baobab tree.

There are several rules you have to abide by in the parks: no driving at night, stay in your vehicle at all times except in designated areas and no walking around after dark even in the designated areas. This makes it imperative you find your campsite, cook dinner and clean up before sundown. Once everything is stowed away, enjoy the sunset, maybe have a little fire, then go to bed and stay there until the sun comes up. This is all necessary because there are no fences or lights around the grounds; the animals are free to roam at will. If you get up in the middle of the night and start stumbling towards the restroom you just might trip over a sleeping zebra, or even worse become a snack for one of the nocturnal predators. Either way, not a pleasant experience.

So on our first night we were determined to find our spot and hunker down. Shaw had provided boxed lunches for us that morning but we hadn't eaten in our flustered state; we devoured them for dinner. At 6:30pm sharp, the sun went down in a fiery blaze, lighting up the baobab and acacia trees with a bright red glow. We were starting to feel like we were in Africa.

The night air filled with what sounded like a cheesy soundtrack entitled "African Sounds." Elephants trumpeted, lions roared in the distance, gazelle made the strangest squeaking noises and zebras spent a lot of time snorting. We were exhausted from the day's events but kept staring at the ceiling of the tent trying to guess what animal was making which noise and how close it was. It wasn't exactly scary—we had met the night ranger armed with the AK-47 earlier in the evening—but it was so exciting to finally be in the middle of it all.

The sun sets beyond the acacia trees.
If the night is the realm of animals, the mornings are dominated by the birds; a chorus of unusual bird sounds woke us up at first light, calling to each other from the surrounding trees. This was to become the rhythm of our trip: up at first light with the birds, to bed after sunset as the lions and hyenas awoke. (Of course we would have gotten up early anyway, awakened by the call of the bladder. It's tough not being able to leave the tent until sunup...)

After breakfast we loaded the car, strapped everything down tightly and climbed in, ready to find some more animals. When Mark turned the key we heard "Ahwuh..ahwuh..aaahhwwuuuuh...." The battery was very nearly dead.

Crap.

We checked everything: the headlights (off), the radio (off), the GPS (shouldn't matter, it doesn't go on without the key), the dome light (there wasn't one). We couldn't find anything amiss, but yet it was drained. Luckily, there was a spare battery and a switch box; we flipped it to "accessory" and the car started right up. First problem solved, but a mysterious one revealed.

What passes for traffic in Tarangire National Park.
We trundled off to explore the river valley, following a rough road leading south. We made a few sandy crossings of dry tributaries and drove up onto a hill overlooking the main riverbed. There before us were at least 30 elephants, digging in the sandy soil for the water below. So amazing. We followed another safari vehicle loaded with tourists, figuring they would lead us to more animals. They disappeared around a corner and when we caught up to them they were turning around and heading back towards us. The driver stopped and advised us to do the same; a bull elephant wasn't too happy about vehicles crowding his herd. We got a quick photo and made the turn too. It's best to listen to the bull elephants.

Ears flared = back off
We drove for a while, meandering around trying to figure out where we were on the map. We finally gave up on that plan and started taking whatever road looked promising for game viewing. We came across a lot of zebra, gazelle, impala and baboon. We found a few smaller herds of elephant. But the most curious sight of all was Adam.


We were driving up a hill on a loop that overlooked the river. As we circled back we noticed a man up ahead; he was holding a bowl and spoon and talking on a cell phone. He waved at us and seemed unconcerned that he was standing in the middle of an area where moments ago we had watched an elephant tear down a tree. Where the hell did he come from?

He was wearing a polo shirt with the name of a tour company embroidered on the pocket. As we drove by he ended his call and waved at us enthusiastically. Jambo! Karibu!(Welcome!)

We introduced ourselves and asked him how he was doing. He said his name was Adam and he worked as a cook for the lodge down below. He walked up after breakfast to take advantage of the cell reception on the hill and call his family back home. We talked about his job, where he came from, where we came from ('Obamaland?') and where we were going. He thought we were very brave to be driving ourselves around and sleeping on top of our car. "Next time," he told us, "you will hire me to cook for you! You call and ask for Adam and I will come with you!" We told him that sounded like a fine idea. After making sure he was ok, we continued on our way, smiling and shaking our heads. We didn't feel brave at all, not after seeing Adam walking around with roving elephants and God knows what else lurking in the grass.


We had actually planned ahead and made some lunch before we left in the morning, but needed to find a picnic area so we could get out and eat. Designated areas are placed around the parks here and there and are equipped with picnic tables and restrooms. It's the only place other than the campgrounds that you are allowed to get out of the vehicle, so it's important to know where they are.

The picnic site, with our lunch box of PBJs and water.
We stopped at a nice one overlooking the river, joining about 10 other safari vehicles in the lot, ours being the only self-drive of the group. We watched as the tour drivers carried pre-made boxed lunches out to the tables for their guests while we ate our measly peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drank from our shared water bottle. This would become an increasingly desperate ritual for us, but on this day we thought we were lucky. We drove ourselves! We made our own lunches! We are not lazy! We are capable!
African squirrel. Just as pesky as ours at home.

There we discovered the one commonality to every park we've ever visited anywhere: squirrels. As soon as we pulled our sandwiches out they appeared, begging for a handout. It was kind of comforting to see something so familiar in this faraway place.

Back at the car,  we were able to coax out a "ahwu..ahwuu..." Really dead this time. Dammit. We switched over to accessory again to get it going and started to fret. What if the battery completely dies in the middle of nowhere? Is the accessory battery charging, or are we draining that one too? We couldn't really enjoy the drive now with that worry in the back of our minds, so we stuck with the more heavily traveled roads (just in case) and found a good spot with cell coverage to call Shaw.

Paul (of Shaw Safaris) guessed it had something to do with a new part they had installed just before we took the car. He and Mark worked out that yes, the accessory battery was charging, so we could use that one for the ignition for the rest of the trip, and if we were really worried about it we could buy a new battery to keep as a spare and he would reimburse us when we returned. We felt marginally better about things after that and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon's game drive snapping hundreds of photos.

Mapping out the drive ahead.
Back at camp a little early, we set up our table and chairs and studied our maps; the next day we would be moving on to a new park and we wanted to be sure of the route. As we sat, enjoying our cold beer and soda, we heard a distant buzzing sound. A plane do you think? Nah, we haven't seen any airplanes since we left the airport. The buzzing got louder and louder as we looked around for the source. Suddenly what can only be described as a carpet of bees flew overhead, about 10 feet wide and 30 feet long. A squadron of bees! It was the most incredible thing I've ever seen. It was also a bit scary in retrospect; what if they were the African honey bees, the famous "killer" ones? Thank goodness they were in a hurry to get wherever they were going.

A refreshing cider, Mark in the background cooking up hamburgers for our first real camp meal. Our food box contained a new taste treat: spicy ketchup. So good we are now looking at specialty stores to see if we can find it here in the U.S.
As we cleaned up our dishes after dinner we looked up to discover a line of elephants walking by camp. Another surprising thing we learned in Africa: elephants are sneaky. They are so huge you'd think they'd make all sorts of noise, crashing around through the trees and bushes. But they are so quiet it's as if they walk on tiptoe. Their feet are huge and squishy; I think that helps muffle the sound of their footsteps. They also walk very deliberately, picking out their next step carefully as they amble along. It's a beautiful sight to see.

(Sorry for the shaky camera work; no time to pull out the tripod. What I like about this video is you can hear the birds in the background. When I think about Africa now, this is the soundtrack that runs through my head.)

The campground was located on a slight rise surrounded by a small valley that led to the river. It was a main thoroughfare for the herds of zebra, gnu, gazelle and obviously, elephant. Sitting in camp turned out to be more effective than driving around; the animals came to us.

One of my favorite photos from Tarangire: two monkeys groom each other near sunset.
We went to bed that night a bit more confident with our abilities and only a little worried about the next day's drive. We made it so far, we reasoned, how bad could it be? Little did we know what was in store for us the next day.

(If you'd like more information about the vehicle click here. For the first entry of this series click here.)